We had to leave from the Ranthambore Tiger Preserve by 9 AM in order to make it to the Taj Mahal in time to be super tourists. The day before in our backcountry safari trip our guide told us about an old abandoned fort deep in the woods that was first built around the 6th century AD and was deserted around the 17th century when the Jaipuri king created another city nearby with better facilities.
We decided it would be worth it to get up before sunrise and hire a truck to take us into the park. Everyone's reluctance gave way to optimism with the thought of seeing some tigers and panthers in the early morning calm.
On the way, I felt the tinge of adventure as the cold breeze blew through the open topped truck we were riding in. Great adventures always begin before sunrise. It's this defining assertion that always comforts me as soon as I've recovered from the early morning lethargy.
The truck pulled up to the park entrance gate at 6:15 AM and we waited under the quiet stars while the park men stoked a small fire they had built behind the gate to stay warm. They let us in a few minutes early and we had the park to ourselves.
As we neared the fort the driver stopped the truck to point out fresh tiger and panther prints on top of the previous days tire tracks. Everyone got quiet as we drove another 100 meters or so before getting out. There we were, all alone, in the open, a football field away from where a tiger had been in the wild only hours before, with a mysterious set of stairs leading up to the spired walls of an ancient fort on the plateau in front of us.
We climbed the hundreds of stairs up in the early morning grey. I was amazed we were the only ones there, us and the hundreds of peacocks, parrots and potential feline company. Unfortunately we didn't have much time to wonder as we had to return in 45 minutes. I got tired of tagging along with the group and set out on my own to see as much of the fort as possible.
The views were incredible, and unimpeded, a wide vista looking out over the central Indian hills. As I got further into the fort, I found a desolate lake with an ancient prayer temple jutting out. I walked up to find an old local man bathing in the water. I moved past the lake and got to the back side of the plateau to see donkeys and a few people stirring to their mornings work. What I thought would be an uninhabited area ended up opening up to a shanty town of people living in the back crevices of the fort.
I climbed up an old tower outpost to look over the town. All of the houses merged into one covered by sheets of scrap metal, tarp and plastic. Off in the distance were literally hundreds of peacocks and other assorted birds feeding around a solitary cow. The sun rose slowly and I snapped a few shots, grateful for such an pure moment. I trotted back to join the group and took a shortcut through the woods, imagining what it must have been like to live here in ancient times, when I heard the shrill cry of a feline. I looked up and there it was, a fierce and majestic tiger, staring at me.. face to face with my own uncertain destiny.
I snapped back to reality, there was no cat, but there could have been and no one would have known what had happened to me. I climbed up a wall to look out over the valley and saw the group at the upper basin of stairs waiting for me to rejoin them. I took a deep sigh, this is why I travel.